How to Build The Perfect Batter
As published in GQ September 2006 Issue
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Every spring, 500 or so amateur players receive an e-mail from the Winslow Research Institute of Discovery Bay, California. "They're told that the Major League Scouting Bureau has requested we contact them,"says William Winslow , the company's featuring stuff like norm tables, frequency distributions, and bell curves, and its end result is a six-page report that predicts whether or not a kid will fulfill his athletic talent. "What we frequently see," Winslow says, sounding not unlike a parochial-school nun, "is an athlete with fantastic God-given gifts who never reaches his potential because he does not have the proper mental attitude and personality."
A player taking the WRI assessment must select the most appropriate multiple-choice response (e.g., "true," "somewhat true," "false") to 190 athlete-themed statements, such as "To really be successful in my sport, I believe you must obey all the rules," "When my opponents beat me, I willingly congratulate them after the contest," and "After my coach strongly criticizes me, it bothers me for days." Winslow says the profile takes forty-five minutes to complete and includes a variety of control questions designed to ensure that a player responds honestly and also that he's paying attention.
He won't tell me how many major league teams subscribe to the profiles, but he does acknowledge that San Diego, Minnesota, Texas, and Baltimore have been particularly active of late. In Baltimore, he says, Dave Ritterpusch, the Orioles' former director of baseball information systems, "knows more than anyone on earth about the mental attitudes of ballplayers."
Ritterpusch is the William S. Burroughs of baseball junkies. While working for the Orioles, he back-engineered three decades' worth of profiles to determine which "trait packages" distinguish successful players. Hundreds of the questionnaires reside in cardboard boxes in his house in the Baltimore suburbs, and periodically, he tells me, he gets out of bed in the middle of the night and pores over his profiles. On one such night, he discovered his "Type B Failure Cluster" for pitchers. "It's very, very subtle," he remarks, which is his way of saying he's not going to elaborate. (Again and again during hours of conversation, Ritterpusch breaks off in midsentence: "I don't want to say too much," he declares repeatedly. "I'm in a guarded situation with the proprietary nature of this.") Still, he talks and talks and talks, partly because he loves this stuff and partly, I think, because for so long so few colleagues willingly listened to him. "It's been a fairly unique experience for me to speak at length with anyone involved in the game and not have snickers and people looking away," he says.
A former military analyst at the Pentagon (he was also an assistant secretary of labor), Ritterpusch has worked in bureaucracies all his life, and he uses psychometrics much in the way the federal governmentand Fortune 500 companies do to evaluate the emotional suitability of prospective employees for certain specialized functions. In this case, those functions are: infield,outfield, starter, setup man, and closer. For each one, Ritterpusch uses the profiles to arrive at a variably weighted "key trait coefficient," which in turn is translated into a percentile score, then scaled from 1 to 5 according to how well a player meets the psychological criteria for his respective function. "Five-pluses" are guys in the ninetieth to ninety-ninth percentile. "If you have outstanding physical ability and you get a five, you're gonna be a star," Ritterpusch says. "Period." He assembles a five-plus infield for me (Helton, Biggio, Jeter, Rolen, Varitek), along with a five-plus rotation (Clemens, Halladay, Beckett, Mussina, and Oswalt, with closers Ray and Papelbon). Foreign stars like Pedro and Mariano aren't included here, since significantly fewer Latin players take the test, and the WRI hasn't yet produced a Japanese or Korean edition.
Within each function, Ritterpusch says, there's no difierentiation psychologically. Right field and left field are the same, as are first base and shortstop. The outfield is where you stash your Mannys and Sheffields-guys who score low on traits like "emotional control" or "mental toughness." The infield, on the other hand, is the purview of the hard-nosed. And setup men are in effect the outfielders of pitchers, unsuited emotionally for starting or closing.
Over the years, Ritterpusch has identified "trait clusters" that predict failure either by their presence or absence. "These seem to be largely unrecognized in the industry," he says, "and this is one of the things that keeps leading to the repetition, year in and year out, of preventable mistakes." By way of example, he cites four Oriole first-round picks (he won't name them) between 1997 and 2002. "They were $8 million worth of predictable failures," he says, adding that two of the four have already been released. Ritterpusch is speaking rapidly and loudly now. "The average first-rounder gets a $2 million bonus!" he says. "Half of those guys flop. It blows my mind, but they keep chasing their tail!"
He alludes to Branch Rickey and the days when talent was cheap; as Brooklyn's GM, Rickey accumulated no fewer than twenty-seven minor league clubs. "That was before agents, before high-cost signings, before these huge research-and-development costs," he says. "But operational people today are familiar and comfortable with this high-overhead, low-return way of doing things. It's all they know. They don't expect baseball operations to be more productive. It's just the way things are. It's always gonna be this way." The whole process operates on principles antithetical to science, he says; scouting is "emotional" and "irrational." In Baltimore, he experienced considerable resistance from scouts whose physically professional athletes don't matter in the least when it comes to baseball. According to his regression analysis of 10,000 profiles, neither "coachability" nor "drive" arecrucial to a prospect's chances of success or failure. In other words, respect and ambition are superfluous in the brain of a ballplayer. Baseball simply "doesn't reward the character traits that our society and church teach us to prize."
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